Service for Inner Growth

  • By Prabuddha Bharata
  • April 2003

In the last editorial we discussed different kinds of service corresponding to different selves in the human personality and their relative merits. Now we shall examine the factors that convert service into a tool for spiritual growth.

The Bhagavad-Gita Analysis of Service
The guna-based analysis of the Bhagavadgita is a veritable guidebook for human development. In its seventeenth chapter Sri Krishna classifies. Dana into three types. Dana means gift and, by implication, what we offer to others, including service of various kinds.

The inferior (tamasic) kind of service is that which is offered without respect or with disdain to an unworthy person at the wrong place and time. The mediocre (rajasic) kind of service is offered grudgingly and with the expectation of a return of a favor or the meritorious fruit of the act. (17.21) The superior (sattvic) kind of service is offered with a feeling that it is one’s duty to give. Such an offering is made to a worthy person who can make no return and at the right time and place. (17.20) Sri Shankara includes under this category even gifts made to those who can return the favor.

Factors That Transform Service into a Spiritual Discipline
Clearly, it is the superior kind of service that can help us in our inner growth. The following factors emerge from the Gita analysis. Service should be offered (1) to a worthy recipient; (2) at the right time and place’ (3) without desire for the fruits of action; and (5) with due respect for the recipient.

While the first two factors can be fulfilled with a little discrimination, the last three factors demand training and persistent self-effort. These factors really determine whether service ends up as a mere activity or helps our inner growth. We shall discuss the third and fourth factors together and then move on to the fifth.

Service Is Only a Means
The central theme of Vedanta is that man is essentially divine but is not conscious of it because of ignorance. The goal of life is to realize this divinity. According to Sri Shankara, a fool who does not strive towards this goal is committing suicide since he kills himself by holding on to the unreal.

It is our mental impurities gathered over many years and births, that cloud our perception and make the unreal appear real to us. So Self-knowledge calls for purification of the mind, which is possible by spiritual practices, or sadhanas. In the Bhagavadgita Sri Krishna gives a three fold prescription for purification: Sacrifice (yajna), service (dana) and austerities (tapas) should not be relinquished, but should be performed with detachment and without craving for the fruits of action. They purify the wise. This is my best and firm conviction.

So Service is an important means for inner purification. When coupled with sacrifice and austerities, it becomes a powerful tool to flush out mental impurities. This point needs to be borne in mind if we look upon service as a means to inner growth.

Service as Worship
By accepting our service the receiver affords us an opportunity to exercise our selflessness and helps us in inner purification. Any expectation of a return from the recipient is therefore meaningless. Rather the giver needs to be grateful to the recipient and not vice versa. Swami Vivekananda held a two fold ideal before his followers: atmano moksa (one’s own liberation) and jagat hita (welfare of the world). service activities of the Ramakrishna Mission have this twofold ideal for their basis. Done in this spirit, service becomes transmuted into worship of God inherent in the illiterate, the downtrodden, the diseased the suffering, the world-weary and the spiritually inclined. Swamiji’s words throw light on how this is possible:

Look upon every man, woman, and everyone as God. You cannot help anyone, your can only serve: serve the children of the Lord, serve the Lord Himself, if you have the privilege. If the Lord grants that you can help any one of his children, blessed you are; do not think too much of yourselves. Blessed you are that that privilege was given to you when others had it not. Do it only as a worship. I should see God in the poor, and it is for my salvation that I go and worship them. The poor and the miserable are for our salvation, so that we may serve the Lord, coming in the shape of the diseased, coming in the shape of the lunatic, the leper and the sinner!

No beggar whom we have helped has ever owed a single cent to us; we owe everything to him because he has allowed us to exercise our charity on him. It is entirely wrong to think that we have done, or can, do good to the world or to think that we have helped such and such people. It is a foolish thought, and all foolish thoughts bring misery. We think that we have helped some man and expect him to thank us, and because he does not, unhappiness comes to us. Why should we expect anything in return for what we do? Be grateful to the man you help, think of him as God. (1.77)

The World Does Not Need Our Help
Our sojourn in this world lasts at best a few decades. Millions of people come into this world and leave it without even creating a ripple. The drama of the world goes on unmindful of our entry or exit. Death is a great leveler. King’s or pauper’s, the body has just one course return to dust. As they say, when the game of chess is over, the king and the pawn go back to the same box. It is the mind that grows and assumes another body fit for its further evolution. So letting our life become just body-centered does not really make much sense. The less our life is centered on body ours as well as others the better for our inner growth.

The knowledge that the world can very well get on without us will make us sober. When we understand that the world does not really need our help, we can work better, without attachment. Nor has the world been created for our enjoyment. Swamiji’s words drive home this point forcefully:
It is weakness to think that anyone is dependent on me, and that I can do good to another. This belief is the mother of all our attachment, and through this attachment comes all our pain. We must inform our minds that no one in this universe depends upon us; not one beggar depends on our charity; not one soul on our kindness; nor one living on our help. All are helped on by nature, and will be so helped even though millions of us were not here. The course of nature will not stop for such as you and me; it is, as already pointed out, only a blesses privilege to you and to me that we are allowed, in the way of helping others, to educate ourselves. (1.89)

We Can Only Straighten Ourselves
It takes a long time-most of our life span to understand that we cannot change the world but can only change ourselves. The story is told of a wise man in his sixties. He said, ‘When I was twenty years old, I thought the world was not as it should have been; I should do my bit to change it. I prayed: “O God, grant me the strength and wisdom to change the world.” When I was forty I began to understand how futile my attempt was. Then I thought that maybe I should narrow down my field. I prayed: “God grant me the strength to change those around me.” The futility of this also was borne home to me by the time I was sixty. Wisdom them dawned on me. I prayed: “O God, grant me the strength to change myself.” The world will continue to be what it is-a bundle of dualities: pleasure and pain, praise and blame, profit and loss, and so on-despite our efforts to straighten it. comparing this world to a dog’s curly tail, Swamiji explains with a parable how this world will remains as kinky as it is; it cannot be straightened even with superhuman attempts. (1.77-9) Then what is the utility of service? Apparently to helps others, but only to help ourselves, to further our inner growth. In other words, working in this world we can only straighten ourselves. says Swamiji, The world is a grand moral gymnasium wherein we have all to take exercise so as to become stronger and stronger spiritually. (1.80)

We Are Mere Carriers of Help
If the world is not going to change, do we then keep quiet seeing other’s suffering? Far from it. that brings us to another important attitude that can elevate service to a spiritual discipline: We are just instruments in the hands of the Divine. Sri Krishna advised Arjuna to be just an instrument and fight the war. This attitude can also foster detachment while doing work and free us from work-related misery. Over to Swamiji:

When you have trained your mind and your nerves to realize this idea of the world’s non-dependence on you or on anybody, there will then be no reaction in the form of pain resulting from work. When you give something to a man and expect nothing-do not even expect the man to be grateful-his ingratitude will not tell upon you, because you never expected anything, never thought you had any right to anything in the way of a return. You gave him what he deserved; his own Karma got it for him; your Karma made you the carrier thereof. Why should you be proud of having given away something? You are the porter that carried the money or other kind of gift, and the world deserved it by its own Karma. Where is then the reason for pride in you? There is nothing very great in what you give to the world. When you have acquired the feeling of non-attachment, there will then be neither good nor evil for you. [emphasis added]

Respect for the Recipient
The fifth important factor in transforming service is respect for the recipient. This becomes spontaneously possible when we do service in a spirit of worship of God dwelling in the recipient. In the Bhagavata God-incarnate sage Kapila underlines the futility of worshipping God in images, disregarding His presence in His creation: ‘If one disregards Me present in all beings as their soul and God but ignorantly offers worship only to images, such worship is as ineffective as sacrificial offerings made in ashes.’ Therefore, worship Me in all beings by offering respect (mana) to all beings and service (dana) to them in a spirit of friendliness (maitri) and an attitude of nonseparateness (abhinna-caksu); for I am the one Self in all beings and have made a temple for Myself in all of them.’ What is important is an attitude of oneness in God. That leads to an important corollary: Service done with discrimination based on caste, creed, and so on is anything but a spiritual discipline.

Service and Love
Service becomes effective only when prompted by selfless love towards the object of service. In his inspiring letter to his Madras disciple Dr Nanjunda Rao, Swamiji spells out some essentials for success: ‘Purity, patience, and perseverance are the three essentials to success and above all love. These factors are significant in the field of service too. Purity of mind and disinterested, undemanding love can bring about a remarkable improvement in the quality of service, besides ennobling the one who serves.

Nowhere else is this fact more evident than perhaps in the ideal life lived by Holy Mother Sri Sarada Devi. Adored as one whose life and character were pure, one who was purity incarnate, she was the spiritual consort of Sri Ramakrishna, married to him when a child of just five. Her life in Dakshineswar (and later in Syampukur and Cossipore) was one of devoted service to her husband, his mother and his disciples and devotees. Though she was married to Sri Ramakrishna, her pure mind was free from any monopoly or special claim over him. There were times in Dakshineswar when she could see him only once in two or three months, though she lived in an enclosure hardly ten meters from his room. She would console her mind by saying, ‘O mind, are you so fortunate that you can see him every day?’ Sri Ramakrishna in turn looked upon her as Divine Mother Herself and could brook no disrespect to her. Theirs was a marriage that consummated not at the physical but at the spiritual level. It was her immaculately pure mind and God-centered love that made her a willing helpmate in Sri Ramakrishna’s mission of raising humanity from materialism to a life anchored in divinity. After Sri Ramakrishna’s passing, he continued serving the fledgling Order founded in his name and her countless children who flocked to her for spiritual solace. The unique lives of this spiritual couple were a vindication of the Upanishadic dictum, 'a ‘husband / wife is not loved for the sake of the husband / wife, but for the sake of the Self within.

Unselfishness the Main Melody
By now it is clear that unselfishness is the main melody of service. No definition of unselfishness could be crisper and more concise than Swamiji’s: There is one thing which is the world and another which is God; and this distinction is very true. What they mean by world is selfishness. Unselfishness is God. His inspiring words can goad anyone to practice this noble virtue:

The motive for name and fame seldom brings immediate results, as a rule; they come to us when we are old and have almost done with life. If a man works without any selfish motive in view, does he not gain anything? Yes, he gains the highest. Unselfishness is more paying, only people have not the patience to practice it. It is more paying from the point of view of health also. Love truth and unselfishness are not merely moral figures of speech, but they form our highest ideal, because in them lies such a manifestation of power.

In sum, if service has to further our spiritual growth it has to be done with love and detachment, without expectation of a return. Above all. It needs to be remembered that service is only a means to end: the realization of our potential divinity.

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